Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Will Turkey's earthquakes create shock waves on election day?

Entretien avec Soli Özel 

Will Turkey's earthquakes create shock waves on election day?
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey

On February 6, southern Turkey was struck by two devastating earthquakes, the largest to hit the country in almost a century. As voters head to the polls on May 14 to elect their president, Turkey is entering a particularly heated election cycle just one month after the tragedy. To face off against incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a bloc of six Turkish opposition parties officially nominated Kemal Kilicdaroglu as their presidential candidate just a few days ago. Kilicdaroglu is the leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and could also garner support from the pro-Kurdish party. Erdogan has been in power for almost two decades, but could his government's failures in responding to the crisis change the outcome of the election? What are the major issues on the ballot and how might the pro-Kurdish party make a difference? Soli Özel, Senior Fellow at Institut Montaigne, shares his insights on these questions.

Over two weeks have passed since the first earthquake hit Turkey and Syria on February 6. How would you currently assess the situation? Has the Turkish government been up to the task of coordinating an effective response?

According to official figures, at least 38,000 people have died in the earthquakes, although latest counts place the death toll at over 48,000 - a disaster of unspeakable proportions. And with so many bodies buried under the rubble that have been removed along with the debris, the human toll is surely even higher. The full extent of the tragedy may never be known.  
The 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude quakes struck ten cities and flattened five city centers. In all, nearly 13.5 million people have been affected over an area the size of Portugal and 2 to 5 million people are already estimated to have fled the region.

The Turkish government has been missing in action during the crisis. The earthquakes have revealed just how weak the country’s institutions are. How can such a failure be explained? Why did the government refuse to let the Turkish army intervene, although it was better equipped than anyone else to respond on the ground? It is very likely that the government sought to prevent the military from performing heroic acts, which would have bolstered its prestige in the eyes of the public. In that regard, the question surrounding the military’s political weight is definitely significant.
Lastly, the government’s inaction can also be explained by a lack of coordination among authorities. Turkish leaders are often educated in theological or religious institutions which do not adequately prepare them to adopt appropriate responses in crisis situations.

Public opinion is divided on the government’s handling of the crisis. A large part of the population blames the government for sitting idly on the sidelines. But it also points the finger at the ruling party’s system of economic growth that has long prioritized construction and encouraged breakneck building, while turning a blind eye to codes and seismic safety standards. In a race to throw up buildings as fast as possible, contractors ended up using iron of poor quality and not enough cement or sand. Public authorities therefore gave their blessing to erect shoddy buildings which would prove to be death traps on that tragic day in February. The fault lines of a corrupt system based on capital accumulation have been exposed for the world to see.

What struck me the most was the attitude that Turkish leaders displayed. [... ] In their own words, the disaster was nothing more than “fate’s plan”.

What struck me the most was the attitude that Turkish leaders displayed during their public appearances following the tragedy. There was not the slightest hint of remorse. All they seemed to care about was absolving themselves of any responsibility, diverting attention from the failure of public authorities, and saving political face ahead of the elections in May. In their own words, the disaster was nothing more than “fate’s plan“.

Over the past fifty years, the main organizations responsible for providing assistance to victims of natural disasters have consistently exhibited dereliction of duty. One of the most well-known, the Turkish Red Crescent, went as far as selling tents to local NGOs supporting victims in need. Authorities have impeded the independence of NGOs on the ground and even attempted to prevent them from appearing on television. Government-controlled media outlets (95% of the country's media) were mobilized to promote a narrative that is far removed from reality. Indeed, the government views these local NGOs as rivals since the success of citizen initiatives only shines a light on its incompetence.

Despite the government’s shortcomings, the country has displayed tremendous solidarity and exemplary commitment. Seeing that Ankara was not stepping up to the plate, many volunteers flocked to the regions that were ravaged by the earthquakes. Without any coordination or help from the authorities—and knowing full well that their efforts could never match a full-fledged government intervention—they still managed to pull victims out from beneath the rubble and offer shelter and medicine.

Turkey’s presidential elections are coming up in May. Will the natural disaster prove to have an impact on the vote? What are the main issues at stake?

Turkey’s political landscape is currently divided into two major party coalitions. The ruling coalition, the People’s Alliance, is led by President Erdogan (AKP) and also currently includes the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party (BBP). The opposition is largely united under the banner of the Nation Alliance and brings together six opposition parties. There is a third bloc, however, that could play a decisive role in the outcome of the upcoming elections. Made up of small left-wing parties, it also counts a political heavyweight in its ranks, the main pro-Kurdish party known as the Peoples' Democratic Party (or HDP).

With 12% to 15% of the electorate, the HDP will undoubtedly decide the fate of the election. The party could be the difference maker in the first round if it decided to not put forward a candidate and rallied behind the Nation Alliance. If a second round was necessary, political pundits expect the HDP to support the opposition candidate. Such support could very well be enough for the Nation Alliance to claim victory.

With 12% to 15% of the electorate, the main pro-Kurdish party (HDP) will undoubtedly decide the fate of the election.

Issues surrounding the economy and inflation will dominate the campaign. The earthquake-stricken region was home to 13.5 million people and its agricultural production accounted for 9% of national GDP. Local business activity has come to a screeching halt, which could create production shortages and lead to even higher prices. Turkey already suffers from a monthly inflation rate equal to the eurozone’s annual figure. For the first time, the middle class is also likely to feel the pain of rising prices and loss of purchasing power, as inflation has been easily outstripping income growth. Consequently, housing rents have risen dramatically (by as much as 120% to 180%) and at a much higher pace than wage growth.
Another crucial issue will be the government’s handling of the crisis in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Despite propaganda efforts, two and a half months will not be enough to erase the government's failures. Although authorities have already begun rebuilding, those efforts are unlikely to restore the public’s confidence in the country’s future or its government.

For many around the country, the loss of loved ones has stoked immeasurable anger, particularly in large cities in western Turkey.  Istanbul is also under constant threat from a massive earthquake. Many of the city's buildings would not withstand a quake of that magnitude, putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people at risk. A significant number of inspections have been carried out to determine if these buildings should be demolished and rebuilt, but time may be running out.
Although another part of the population remains blindly loyal to the president, the crisis could reshape the opinion of voters on this issue. The hardest-hit cities are traditionally conservative strongholds. In the latest polls, this segment of the population showed, as always, loyal support for Erdogan and confidence in the leader’s actions over the past twenty years. How will the population react to this traumatic event? How long will they have to face miserable living conditions before changing their minds? These are important questions that need to be closely monitored.

It is imperative that the elections be organized in such a way that these people can cast their ballots wherever they sought refuge.

We should also note that part of the population has already left the region. It is therefore imperative that the elections be organized in such a way that these people can cast their ballots wherever they sought refuge. This will be particularly challenging given that many institutions are still paralyzed in the aftermath of the disaster.

How would you assess the European response to the natural disaster? What is the state of relations between Turkey and Europe amidst the war in Ukraine and a rise in anti-Western sentiment?

One of the most extraordinary and inspiring moments of this crisis has been the overwhelming amount of aid that has poured in from around the world, including Australia, Mexico, France, the Netherlands, Israel and Greece. Even Armenia extended a helping hand when its border crossing with Turkey was temporarily reopened to let trucks carrying humanitarian aid cross into Turkish small feat given that the border had been closed for 31 years! This glimmer of hope in the midst of the disaster showed that Turkey is not isolated on the international stage. The aid Turkey has received will make it very difficult for the government to continue to mouth the same anti-Western rhetoric, which relies heavily on maligning the West and its allies. And this turn of events will help discredit a recurrent argument in Erdogan's electoral discourse.

The relationship between the European Union and Turkey, which is far from good, is currently in a deep coma. Hungary is one of the few countries to still maintain cordial relations with Ankara. But the quality of this understanding, given Hungary's controversial position on the European stage, further underscores the country's difficulties with the remaining EU members. This crisis has nevertheless provided an opportunity for the European Union to approach Ankara with much more sympathy than before.

The outcome of the elections will be crucial for Brussels to reconfigure its stance towards Turkey. The opposition didn’t give Europe much more hope. Nothing suggested it would be more favorable or flexible towards the West than the existing government.  But from the EU's point of view, any alternative is better than Erdogan remaining in power. Conversely, Vladimir Putin hopes that the incumbent president will not have to move out of the presidential residence in Ankara.

The Turkish Republic will celebrate its 100th anniversary on October 29, 2023. As the elections approach, it is important to underscore that the republican experiment, despite its failures and shortcomings, is one that must be sustained. Many Europeans have often thought of Turkey as a distant and foreign land. My hope is that these events will have shown everything there is to know and explore about this country, in spite of its government. My hope is also that the mobilization will have reflected the energy, creativity and empathy of the pro-justice and pro-freedom forces that are still present in Turkish society, especially among the younger segments of the population.

The European Union has stayed silent for too long while witnessing the erosion in the rule of law and democratic achievements in Turkey. A failure to renew the government that came to power almost 20 years ago would further undermine what remains of Turkish republican ideals. It would also further cut off the best part of Turkey from its leaders and the country as a whole. Such an outcome would also have negative consequences for the EU. But this shall not be considered a call for help. Turkey, alone, can and must provide answers.


Copyright Image : OZAN KOSE / AFP

A man walks among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Hatay on March 6, 2023, one month after a massive earthquake struck southeastern Turkey.

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English